The coarse sweater was making him visibly uncomfortable, further forcing him to squirm in his chair, like a student avoiding the questioning gaze of a professor. He paused, unsure of how to start the introduction, more for lingual reasons than personal; silently plying both his hands across the table with a business card. A socks manufacturing company hailing out of Shangyu, an industrial zone in Zhejiang province, China; had sent him to this English tutoring agency to gather some foreign talent for what is known in some circles in Shanghai as the ‘Big Nose’ job.
At first, I assumed the job would entail something under the lines of a business teacher being rented out, unknowingly accepting to meet at my recruiters under the minimum requirement that I wear something “business-like.”
“Very simple,” he awkwardly assures me, “Tomorrow you will just eat some lunch. No negotiating; very simple.” Details are inconspicuous at first, which is to be the theme that will follow me and my incognito colleagues-to-be throughout the next 30 hours. Playing the Big Nose (or token foreigner) is a ruse used by companies in China, playing blatantly upon the gaping inequities of a globalizing society. Investors are ostensibly invited to meet other foreign investors or workers, who are in fact arbitrarily-hired westerners, posing especially for the occasion. The company pays a generous sum to the English recruiting agency; one of the multitudes of mediums that materialize overnight in China, to rent the first three white males they can find in hopes to pull-one-over on future clients.
The ruse, as promised, is simple. After awaking from our 5 star hotel in Shangyu the next morning, we pile into the awaiting van and start off towards the office. The roles are assigned upon arrival: I am to be the assistant, an Australian man of about 45, the boss; and the third, a translator originally from America. The desultory plot is hatched with all the whim of a half-rate TV series. The presence of our translator is complete chance, as his premier reason for being in Shangyu is to research the English recruiting agency that has hired us, a competitor of his own recruiting agency. Luckily for our employers, and us, he is fluent Mandarin and has a basic knowledge of the dialects of the area as well, having lived in Zhejiang province half a decade ago.
“He says these are samples,” our translator says, who wishes to keep his anonymity, “That’s a way of saying they don’t have the license yet.” We are given the grand tour of the factory, more out of way to occupy our boredom than to educate us. The company makes ‘samples’ of Pierre Cardin brand socks in a compound that houses several hundred workers. The workers get about 5-10 RMB an hour and free on-site accommodation. The socks are produced in an assembly line fashion in a three story warehouse opposite where they live. A rickety wooden exoskeleton dominates the area next to the workplace; this is to be the site of the new canteen employees have been rewarded with.
Completed socks are sold for about 3 RMB a pair, but if the company can show some proof that the quality is good enough to make it to the international market, then they can convince clients not only into buying their product, but also into charging more for it.
Backstage we rehearse our roles over some tea and assorted Chinese fruits. Our ‘boss’, the older man from Australia, is to play the part of a Wal-Mart executive who has just agreed to buy 15,000,000 pairs of socks. We assume, and hope, that no one will pick up on his thick Australian accent, especially since there aren’t any Wal-Marts in Australia.
Either our guide’s new sweater has started to cause visible irritation, or he is beginning to get stage fright. He silently voices his angst by toying with his phone in a dual attempt to distract himself and look busy. We are left eating a quiet lunch in a secluded VIP room of the hotel, awaiting a signal that has left us all wondering for 3 hours. The much anticipated call finally comes.
“Have you tried huang jiu before?” he asks. Zhejiang Province’s famous yellow alcohol is topped off in our champagne glasses. Our Australian boss giggles, “I’ve been here for 18 months and I’m finally going to do what I’ve dreamt of. Be in a Chinese business meeting.”
The banquet table is swirling with half eaten hot and cold Chinese dishes when we enter through the double doors. All eyes search us as we are led over to the chairs to greet the guests of honor. “I look forward working with you in the future,” our boss bellows, holding up his glass for a cheer. “I plan to buy 15,000,000 pairs of socks.” The sentences are translated and the room hoists the glasses up before a bilingual cheer is given and the golden liquid is taken back. Smiles and handshakes are exchanged before we are quickly ushered out and back into seclusion.
For our dinner we pitch a similar staging, now posing as a German electronics company planning to invest in construction projects. This time we are invited for a full sit down meal with the Chinese executive who is also considering investing, though obviously needing some extra incentive.
“Huan ying De Guo,” our Australian boss says gregariously. Welcome to Germany! My translator and I share a clandestine giggle as our boss shoots another glass of huang jiu down, finishing the glass with a great exclamation. “Thank you!” No pair of random white guys could have made worse German businessmen. The situation was very dodgy. The Chinese executive could very easily have brought a German translator, creating a detrimental, as well as dangerous, situation. “Pretend you’re drunk,” our translator begins to guide, “Stand up and wobble around. Then we can get out of here.”
Globalization gives prestige to a race, making ‘Big Nose’ jobs a simple ruse that bolsters business and, more importantly, reputation. In a country where ‘face’ is intimately woven into business, a night at a five star hotel, transportation fees, three square meals, and 2000 RMB a head is a small price to pay. The cash is doled out back in our hotel room, before we are dropped off at the Shangyu train station. We have acted well, and despite attempts on their part to pay one of us less; we’ve stuck together. The Three Musketeers of Shangyu, emerging unscathed out of a hoax that firmly outlines the advantage of our nature, and the prejudice of our world.
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